When Kevin and I first traveled to Big Cedar Lodge, we had no idea the impact it would have on us for the rest of our lives. Looking back over the years, this natural respite was the first place to inspire our love for cabin living. The lodge is owned by outdoors legend Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops. And for us, Big Cedar Lodge is one of America's best kept vacation secrets. Here is a story Kevin wrote about it, which captured the essence of why this destination is so special.
An Ozarks Sportsman’s Paradise
By Capt. Kevin Merritt
If Louisiana is the “sportsmen’s paradise”, then Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri is the sportsmen’s Mecca. When a sportsman pulls into Big Cedar Lodge, he gets the same feeling he got as little kid when he was about to walk into a toy store. He knows the goods are coming. He knows, this is gonna be good.
That’s how I felt when I arrived at Big Cedar. I had heard about it for years. The brainchild of Johnny Morris who founded Bass Pro Shops in the back of his father’s Brown Derby liquor store 40 years ago, Big Cedar Lodge was a work in progress for decades. After spending a week there fishing Table Rock Lake and traversing Dogwood Nature Canyon, it’s safe to say that work in progress has morphed into a haven for all things outdoors and everything that is comforting about nature.
It’s hard to imagine a resort that can turn down the volume of your life outside its boundaries as well as this place does. As a full time fishing guide and part time outdoors journalist, you’d think the last thing I want to do on vacation is go fishing. Having a food and travel writer as a wife, I often get to go to amazing destinations. But to the true sportsman and outdoor enthusiast, it’s rare to find a place that grabs my attention like Big Cedar Lodge did.
When I heard I would have the chance to fish Table Rock Lake, I packed my bags. Usually when I accompany my wife on her travels, I relish the thought of sleeping on airplanes, getting caught up on my reading and waking up after the sun rises – these are a few of my favorite things. But nothing could have prepared me for arriving at the pinnacle of outdoor sports – where the man who modernized outdoor sporting retreats created the perfect destination for people like me.
Before I get to the fishing, let me touch on the décor of Big Cedar Lodge and the Bass Pro Shops Headquarters. From the cabins to the main lodges to the stores, the entire Bass Pro family of properties is like the world’s best taxidermists in the world have been imprisoned and sent to exile to produce the finest examples of preserved natural history known to man. Don’t waste your time traveling to America’s cities to Museums of Natural History. No natural history museum can claim to have one tenth of the fish and game mounts that adorn almost every vertical and horizontal surface of the lodge, cabins and store headquarters.
And if you think the Bass Pro Shops in your town is the best, you’re not even close. The headquarters in Springfield, Missouri is ground zero for school girl giddy shopping for any sportsman. There are enough full size animal mounts to supply every museum in the world with something from hundreds of species. On fact, owner Johnny Morris through Bass Pro Shops and Big Cedar Lodge own the largest private collection of mounts in the world donated by some of the planet’s most enthusiastic collectors. It’s as if someone took a Peterson’s Field Guide to North America and made the pages come to life.
The décor at Big Cedar Lodge is no different. Cabins where many famous people like Kevin Costner and former President George H.W. Bush have stayed are named for their famous inhabitants. Every dresser is crafted just for that specific space. Every cabinet and bed frame is handmade or acquired from an authentic resource. Every frame is customized – every lantern, horn, stuffed opossum, bear or flock of grouse was personally chosen by Johnny Morris himself. In our cabin, a brace of teal banked hard into the living room, if that gives you any idea of the level of detail in each room. It’s the Barbie Dream House of sportsman, the one every sporting husband wants but is afraid to ask for, designed by Morris and his team, people who have spent hours in a deer stand or sat shivering in a duck blind with a bad case of numb toes. The entire place was built and decorated and loved by lifelong outdoorsmen. I got dizzy just counting all of the wildlife I’d fished, hunted or admired from afar, mounted on the very walls where I slept. In short, the décor and architecture of Big Cedar Lodge is the Sistine Chapel of sportsmen’s retreats.
As luck would have it, the annual Tracker boat dealer meeting was happening the same week I was visiting Big Cedar Lodge as evidenced by the flotilla that would rival a small nation’s Navy. I caught up with the man who has won four Bassmaster Classic titles and seven Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year titles, Kevin VanDam, whom I discovered shares my passion for Big Cedar Lodge. He is a true quarterback in a one-man sport with humility that only slightly hides the ferocious competitor that he is.
The most recognized, most decorated bass fishing champion ever and I got the chance to wax poetic on fishing Table Rock Lake, the magic of Big Cedar Lodge and the life of a career fisherman. According to VanDam, on any cast, you can catch a five pound largemouth, a five pound spotted bass or five pound smallmouth, which is just incredible.
“Table Rock is definitely in my all-time top five favorite lakes and without a doubt, is the premier spotted bass lake,” he said.
Spotted bass are the feisty cousins of the largemouth and smallmouth. They have made Table Rock Lake entirely their own.
“It’s a tremendous fall, winter and spring fishery, although it is tough in the summertime when the fish move to offshore structure post spawn,” said VanDam.
It just so happens, those were the conditions I found when I was there. Summertime fishing on Table Rock Lake is best done on deep drop offs over submerged trees. Anyone with the most limited ability to read the lowest quality depth finder will have no trouble finding this structure.
Here is your game plan:
Pull up to a point.
Look at your depth finder.
Mark the fish.
Drop down the drop shop rig.
Twitch, hook, repeat.
The best fishing I had was in 15 to 18 feet of water after marking large schools of shad. I love fishing a drop shop rig for spotted bass because it’s an incredibly hard fighting fish. The spotted bass is similar to a smallmouth in that they have that Napoléon complex when hooked. There is no question that it’s a spotted bass on the end of the line as they dig and dog it out with you trying to get back to the flooded trees. If you tied a two pound spotted bass to a five pound largemouth, he would drag him all over the lake.
“There are so many different ways to fish Table Rock Lake depending on the time of year,” said VanDam. “It is a legendary spinner bait lake and I essentially learned to fish spinner baits on Table Rock Lake.”
VanDam went on to share that Table Rock Lake can be challenging day to day, but during spawning periods, almost every bank is a spawning area with tons of crayfish, tons of baitfish.
“I have been here 25 times and it is one of my favorite places to bring the family – we always try to stay an extra week after tournaments,” he said. “The outdoor theme and atmosphere creates a great place to get the kids to experience the outdoors.”
By the time I spoke with VanDam, I had already fished Table Rock Lake and chatted with Big Cedar Lodge Assistant Marina Manager Chris Crawley.
“We rent everything from kayaks to houseboats,” Crawley said and I chuckled. Apparently, if it floats you can rent it out of that marina. Chris was humbled by the ability of the guide staff who regularly take anglers out on the lake.
But Big Cedar Lodge proper and Bass Pro Shop headquarters are only part of the Big Cedar picture. Just down the road about a 20-minute ride by Big Cedar Lodge shuttle is Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, a nature preserve that’s part of the resort.
Here is the thing about Dogwood Canyon. If you took the best hundred yard stretches of every managed trout stream or river in the United States and stuck them end to end, you’d have Dogwood Canyon Nature Park. Let’s be honest: these aren’t the pedigreed wild trout that have driven so many feather flingers to utter madness, but they are no less challenging. The Canyon is separated into two fisheries, guided and unguided. Do yourself a favor and go with a guide. The best that Dogwood Canyon has to offer is their playground.
Trout fishing there is perfect for the beginner as there are many, many opportunities and for the experienced angler there is enough of a challenge that it doesn’t feel like shooting fish in a barrel. Never mind the elk and bison stumbling around the upper reaches of the park. I admit it. I was mentally painting crosshairs on some of the bigger bulls.
Big Cedar Lodge fills up quickly so plan ahead, especially if you plan to rent a cabin. For more information, click to www.Big-Cedar.com.
Big Cedar Lodge is located in the Ozark Mountains 10 miles south of Branson, Missouri.
It was originally inhabited and occupied by the Osage Indians and developed in the early 1920’s as a vacation retreat for two wealthy Missourians before being converted in 1947 to “Devil’s Pool Guest Ranch,” named for the spring-fed pool on site.
Johnny Morris and Bass Pro Shops acquired the property in 1987 after which it became a luxury wilderness resort featuring turn of the century Adirondack hunting lodges upgraded with modern conveniences.
Big Cedar Lodge is spread throughout 800 acres overlooking the 43,000-acre Table Rock Lake.
Activities at nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park include biking, horseback riding and fly fishing, archery and ATV riding among others.
Photo Credits: Kelly Merritt, Kevin Merritt, Big Cedar Lodge
For the past 30 years, United States Coast Guard Master Licensed Captain Kevin Merritt has been an outdoor guide, having owned and operated fly and light tackle guide charter businesses in North Carolina, Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands. He has been an Orvis-endorsed backcountry fly fishing instructor since 1999 and is a noted national speaker and author of numerous travel articles on fishing, the fishing industry and has been featured on local and national television and radio shows. For more about Kevin, visit wwwFlyFishMayberry.com.